Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Modern Mind

There was once a man who believed himself to be the paragon of the Modern Mind. He wore modern clothes and he believed in modern things, and together with his modern friends he found great joy in pitying all of those who came before—those of ancient and archaic minds. Daily, this modern man saturated himself in the most modern ideas; the most modern beliefs. Daily he would outgrow all that he had known and all that he had held to, for no sooner had he come to believe in something than that thing would grow outdated and silly, and he could not believe that he had ever been so gullible as to believe in it. There were ever newer ideas upon which to cling; newer thoughts and interpretations and ideas and amusements and pleasures. This very model of the Modern Mind found this all perfectly healthy and perfectly simple, until the very moment that his modern mind slipped into thoughts of the future. “Why would I ever hold to this today,” he asked himself, “when something better will surely come tomorrow? Why should I subscribe to these fashions? Why should I read these words and trust in these philosophies?” In this way, this modern man was transformed into the postmodern man and soon enough it drove him absolutely mad.

I thought at first that this story provided an intriguing first glimpse at the phenomenon of the Modern Mind, though I now realize that it is crippled by one fatal flaw: The Modern Mind, as I understand it, has never shown signs that it will ever obtain the sort of self-awareness that could lead to any such revelation. It is continuous and cyclical, and shows no signs of recognizing the tragically narrow precipice upon which it has been balancing for too long.

Now, that being said, an introduction:

I chose my title for this entire endeavor carefully, and with great purpose: The Kingdom of God and the Modern Mind. It should be obvious, then (thanks to the careful placement of the conjunction in the title), that I am hoping to address two very different things; and these things on the surface should seem to my readers to be about as separate as any two ideas could be.

There is The Kingdom of God, which is one idea—and I would say a very good idea—and then there is the Modern Mind, which is something else entirely. These two elements should seem, initially, quite beyond comparison in the first place (like comparing the value of water to the value of adverbs, or value of a dollar to the value of philosophy). How is one to compare the inestimable glory of the Kingdom of God to the borderline madness of the Modern Mind? Rest assured, however, these two do indeed sit in relation to one another, and that relation is nothing more than stark opposition. They are bitter, brutal enemies, one continually pitted against the other. In this way it is very much like comparing two warring factions, except that the competition is severely lopsided from the start: One is almost indescribably great, the other is almost unthinkably little. One is strong and without equal, the other is the very beacon of weakness. Perhaps most accurate of all: One is the problem, the other the solution. One is a picture of the symptom, the other a picture of the perfect body, as it will look after the disease is defeated.

And yet, it is with this lesser, more insignificant force that I must begin my exposition, for I believe that it is strategically important to define the problem before one can even begin to consider a solution. In the essay to follow this I will turn to the much more pleasant topic of the Kingdom of God, and in subsequent essays I will address the present state of things in relation to both ideas (hopefully demonstrating the superiority of the one over the other), but for now I must singularly address the Modern Mind.

With all of that said, it may surprise some that I don’t believe in the Modern Mind in the first place. The man who believes himself to possess a Modern Mind may just as easily assert that he keeps a pet unicorn. I believe the very idea of it to be apocryphal—but even apocrypha can be a dangerous thing when it is held to.

Put another way, I believe that there is a modern mind and a Modern Mind (I hope that it does not need to be said, but just in case: the difference lies in the capital letters). There is certainly a modern mind, and it exists in a sort of “eternal present.” Every mind in existence is a modern mind, but only inasmuch as it exists in the present. Every mind is more modern than all minds to come before; but it is just as soon replaced by a still newer model, just as surely and regularly as the ticking of a clock. The strange creature I do not believe in is the Modern Mind. This is the mind that holds itself up as something unique; something truly novel. This is the mind that believes that it has truly achieved something spectacular by way of its sequential supremacy over all minds to have come before. The man of the Modern Mind exudes, what C.S. Lewis called, “Chronological Snobbery.” If there is a single quality I would most eagerly ascribe to the Modern Mind, it must surely be this.

I do not believe in this Modern Mind for the same reason that I don’t believe in the strange chimeras of folklore: though I have heard and read much of them, I have seen no evidence for their existence; in fact, I have seen a tremendous amount of evidence to the contrary.

There is, as I have said, a modern mind, but there is nothing unique about it, just as there is nothing unique about the modern gall bladder or the modern ear lobe. But—cries the believer in the Modern Mind; the singer of his own praises—the Modern Mind has been built upon the shoulders of generations of lesser minds! Has it not proved its own worth? Has it not already accomplished great things? In fact, the Modern Mind has proven only that its capacity for singing its own praises has no boundary. The Modern Mind has shown that it believes so strongly in itself that it has, in fact, forgotten everything else. The Modern Mind must by necessity stand as its own savior, its own messiah.

The Modern Mind denies the religion of its ancestors and instead preaches the religion of modern science and modern sociology, believing that every poor, unfortunate soul to have not been so blessed with our present state of knowledge must have suffered from something terrible: an ancient and obtuse mind. If only those ancient souls could have been blessed with our thoughts! If only they had had the good fortune of abandoning their ancient and tawdry superstitions in order to worship at the altar of the atom and the expanding cosmos!

Chronological snobbery.

We all understand that there are tangible advantages to living in our present age, but there is no doubt in my mind that possessing a highly evolved mind is not one of them. In thousands of years of recorded history I have seen no evidence of advancement in either our capacity for learning or our extreme gullibility at believing in absurdities. We, the people of these highly evolved minds, still readily believe, as Malcolm Muggeridge said, “absurdities in advertisements and in statistical and sociological prognostications before which an African witch-doctor would recoil in derision.” The Modern Mind, collectively, seems like a comedy troupe, prancing around on a darkened stage, reacting to one another with utter seriousness even as the entire audience roars in laughter at the truth of the scene aware only to them. The Modern Mind is not aware of its own dramatic irony.

But surely there is some superiority to the Modern Mind over the ancient mind, isn’t there? The ancients ascribed the unexplained to their deities; we to science. The ancients allowed themselves to be ruled by the laws passed down by false prophets; we to the progressive laws of men, evolving to fit the changing moods and morals of humanity. But is there really any change here beyond nomenclature? Is there really much of a difference between the modern laws of theoretical physics and the gods of the ancients? When they did not fully understand the true nature of the sun they called it Ra; now, as we do not know the true nature of particles we called them quarks. What has really changed, but that now we may sit in judgment without fear of reciprocation? We mock the ancient Greek because he had the audacity to believe in a body controlled by humors rather than a cardio-vascular system; we deride the philosophers of the 16th century for their difficulties in believing in an Earth that moved around the sun. It is easy to snipe at the ancients from our ivory towers of knowledge.

And yet, an honest observer should see clearly that the Modern Mind is a modern myth. An objective student of human history should assert—should admit, at the very least—that the strangest thing about the modern mind is just how perfectly it echoes the ancient mind. How the mind of a software engineer suffers and succeeds in a way identical to the mind of a Visigoth; how a Texan and a Mongol share too much in common to be coincidence. The scientist of today demonstrates no more capacity for learning than his ancient counterpart, just as the drunkards and womanizers of today are no more civilized in their drunkenness and debauchery than the Persians and their harems. The Modern Man, thrown into the ancient world, would find his reactions and observations identical to the ancient man.

That is the foundation of my argument—and I think it is a sound one. But where, it is fair to ask, am I going with all of this? How does any of this lead to something valuable? Only in the realization that there is no place for the Modern Mind in the Kingdom of God.

The Modern Mind has no use for God just as it has no use for mythology. The Modern Mind is an idolatrous mind, and its greatest idol is itself. To the Modern Mind, salvation comes from within; the world will be changed only by way of devotion to the Modern Mind. There is something new under the sun, and that thing is the Modern Mind. Their mockery of the ancients often rests on their willingness to trust in the divine, for they believe themselves to have obtained sufficient knowledge that the divine may be rendered unnecessary.

And lest anyone—especially the devout—believe themselves free from the influence of The Modern Mind, rest assured: its effects are almost ubiquitous. I am as guilty as any. All, at one time or another, have been caught submitting to this force, and often in the most subversive ways. How many times have we been fooled into the belief that the present moment, the present age, is unique in history? How many times have we caught ourselves in believing that our present political situation is somehow more important than ever; the political climate more divisive than ever? That the wars are somehow more violent or more common in our present age? That our morals have sunk to a new low? That the wealthy have never been more greedy or the poor more pitiful? How many times have we allowed ourselves to believe that we stand upon some shining moment of great human revolution or destruction, forgetting entirely that such seemingly crucial moments in history seem to arise every couple of decades?

It is impossible to engage with others today without some element of the Modern Mind manifesting itself. For those who are already faithful, the Modern Mind tends to draw us away from a true understanding of our own nature and our need of something greater. To the skeptic, the Modern Mind exists to fill the great spiritual chasm of the soul; it offers hope that man may fix himself, repairing the brokenness of both himself and his society. Though man has been attempting (and failing) to do just that for thousands of years, the Modern Mind believes himself uniquely capable, standing just on the cusp of some invisible utopia.
But there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing unique about the present state of man—it is just as beholden to human nature as it ever was, and its manifestations have not changed. Man is neither better or worse than he has ever been.

What, then? Is it really as hopeless as all of that?

It is not. It is certainly not. For there is a cure to the Modern Mind just as there is a cure to the condition of man. And that cure rests solely in the Kingdom of God.